The National Theatre Brno started its new season yesterday by staging The Tales of Hoffmann, an opéra fantastique by French composer Jacques Offenbach with French libretto written by poet Jules Barbier. Directing was undertaken by the recognized artistic tandem SKUTR, consisting of Martin Kukučka and Lukáš Trpišovský. The title role was presented by Luciano Mastro, his faithful companion Nicklausse (and also the figure of the Muse at the end of the show) was performed by Markéta Cukrová. The roles of Hoffmann's sweethearts Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta and Stella have were performed by Martina Masaryková, Pavla Vykopalová, Daniela Straková-Šedrlová and Andrea Široká. The character of Hoffmann's eternal rival (Lindorf/Coppélius/Miracle/ Dappertutto) was interpreted by Ondrej Mráz. The orchestra was led by Ondrej Olos, the choir by Klára Složilová Roztočilová.
The Tales of Hoffmann, together with the opera Die Rheinnixen, occupy a special place in the work of Jacques Offenbach. Although the composer focused mainly on lighter genres and is thought to be a creator of operetta in a figurative way (though not quite rightly), in The Tales of Hoffmann the author's intention was rather a more traditional work comparable to operas by George Bizet, Charles Gounod and Camille Saint-Saëns. The Tales of Hoffmann remained unfinished due to Offenbach's death, and after the composing of the remaining parts by composer Ernest Guiraud, the opera became a blockbuster. Even today, the final form of the work evokes a series of question marks and we can only speculate what some parts would look like had the composer managed to finish them. In the meantime, however, the story of a poet seeking the perfect feminine ideal became one of Jacques Offenbach's most favourite stage works.
Soon after its announcement, the Brno production awoke a lot of promises – the directors' tandem SKUTR has a number of successful directing achievements on its account, and cooperation with stage designer Jakub Kopecký, costume designer Simona Rybáková and choreographer Jan Kodet raised additional expectations, to say the least. And SKUTR can add another skilfully refined production to its portfolio after yesterday's premiere. The creators made every effort to ensure that the clash of the fanciful and the real seemed perfectly organic and balanced. The minimalist stage design only intensifies this impression, and the transition between the opera world and the sudden loitering and flexing of the actors or the running around of sound engineers and technicians is one of those many tasteful directing tricks that begin to roll on the audience from the first opening of the curtain.
The stage design is mostly modest, but its elements are balanced and pleasing to the eye, yet above all it fulfils the vision of the directors. In every act, Jakub Kopecký offers a fresh and impressive depiction of Hoffmann's experiences. In the first act, in which Hoffmann tells of his love for the animatronical doll Olympia, the stage set is dominated by an elevated glass room with Hoffmann's exposed and rotating sweetheart, and an arrow hanging over the scene with the sign of an atom at its end. The second act conveniently sets the story of Antonia, described by Hoffmann as a "doll", into a stylized puppet house – even with a smoking little chimney! There are smaller and larger details in each scene, referring to the specifics of each story. The directors make use of these mesmerizing scenes with as good sense of detail. The movement on the stage is sophisticated and in many cases based directly on the narrated story; as an example, we could mention the floating gondola in the third act, the pulling of props in the first act, and so on.
Jan Kodet's choreography, which in its form always reflects the story told by Hoffmann, uses the same sense of detail. For example, in the first act, the dancers accompanying the singing Olympia are characterized by jerky robotic movements. And even the figure of the servant Cochenille, playing the harp, swirls around the instrument in the manner of children's wind-up toys. Small details also evoke delight – when the dancers kneel to Hoffman's reflection lying on the ground, they fold down into the shape of a fan so that each of them can be seen.
Excellent singing performance is a separate chapter. This was definitely a showcase of great singers' voices – Luciano Mastro in the role of Hoffmann captivated the audience with his eccentric expression, which is perfectly suited to the distracted, passionate and bohemian spirit of the title character. Mastro easily managed the tense and lyrical positions and in each of them excelled different qualities of his varied voice fund. As a faithful companion accompanying Hoffmann throughout the story, Markéta Cukrová shone out; her gentle heights with a sensitively decorated tone, were a fragile and catharsis climax of the whole story at the end of the performance. Olympia – Hoffmann's first love – bewitched the audience with precise virtuoso runs and a crystal-clear timbre of her voice. Her acting portrayal of the robotic creature was also delightfully smileful. Pavla Vykopalová introduced herself as the tender Antonia – her role fitted her perfectly not only as regards singing but also acting. Particularly interesting was her duet with Luciano Mastro, in which the voices of both protagonists deliciously complemented each other in the expression and in the timbre. Vykopalová emphasized the fragility of her character with tender lyricism and gentle velvet vibrato. Daniela Straková-Šedrlová, as Giulietta, also rendered a remarkable performance, although she paid a price for the fact that Giulietta is the most troublesome of all the characters and bears most of the signs of the painful birth of this opera. Andrea Široká in the role of Stella appeared only at the very end of the opera and, despite the relatively limited space, she captivated the audience with her balanced, although somewhat drowned, voice expression. Ondrej Mráz looked both elegant and evil, trying to give each of his characters a unique expression, which in some places resulted in a bit taunted "too French" French. The singer's devilishly calm and mighty bass formed an excellent counterpart to Luciano Mastro's excited voice. Minor characters performed by Ales Voračka and David Szendiuch were also very convincing. The orchestra, led by Ondrej Olos, was full of subtle dynamic shades, and the conductor made sure that the musicians expressed the most sophisticated changes of mood and the changing sounds of the momentary scenes. Except for some minor intonation errors, the orchestra played purely and rhythmically reliably. Equally good was also the choir led by Klára Složilová Roztočilová, which greatly counterbalanced the soloists and its final double-choral number sung from the balconies of the Janáček Theatre literally awoke goose bumps.
The National Theatre Brno has begun its new season indeed spectacularly and it is definitely a performance that opera-eager listeners should not miss. Excellent and fresh direction, a purposeful and balanced stage design, smart choreography, great costumes and almost flawless singing performances set the bar for the next opera performance high. We can only look forward to how the next premiere title, Der Rosenkavalier directed by Jiří Heřman, will be dealing with this competition. If the new season continues as it started, we really have something to look forward to.
Author: Jacques Offenbach
Musical production: Ondrej Olos
Conductor: Ondrej Olos, Pavel Šnajdr
Directed by: SKUTR
Stage design: Jakub Kopecký
Costumes: Simona Rybáková
Choreography: Jan Kodet
Choreographic cooperation: Kateřina Nováčková
Choirmaster: Klára Složilová Roztočilová
Assistant director: Vojtěch Orenič
Dramaturgy: Patricie Částková
Characters and cast:
HOFFMANN: Luciano Mastro
MUSE / NICKLAUSSE: Markéta Cukrová (guest)
OLYMPIA: Martina Masaryková (guest)
ANTONIA: Pavla Vykopalová
GIULIETTA: Daniela Straková-Šedrlová
LINDORF/COPPÉLIUS/MIRACLE/ DAPPERTUTTO: Ondřej Mráz (guest)
ANDRÉS/ COCHENILLE/FRANTZ/PITICHINACCIO: Petr Levíček
HERMANN/SCHLEMIL: Igor Loškár
SPALANZANI/NATHANAEL: Aleš Voráček (guest)
CRESPEL/LUTHER: David Nykl, David Szendiuch
VOICE OF THE MOTHER OF ANTONIA: Jitka Zerhauová
WILHELM/STUDENT/WOLFRAM: Kornel Mikecz
STELLA: Andrea Široká
premiere on Friday 20 September 2019